Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Points of difference

At the end of the last post I promised an explanation for a very different translation of Hebrews 9:16-18. But what I did not present in the previous post was a modern english translation with which to compare it. And so, in order to help facilitate a clear difference between the two translations, I will post my translation side by side with the ESV translation.
16  For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established.  17 For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive.  18 Therefore not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood.  (ESV) 
16  For where a covenant is, it is necessary that the death of the covenant-ratifier be brought forward. 17  For a covenant is confirmed upon dead bodies, otherwise it is not valid at all while the covenant-ratifier is alive.  18  Therefore not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood. (My translation)
The differences ought to be apparent right away. The ESV assumes that the author has shifted away from his previous discussion in verse 15 about a "covenant" and is now interested in toying with a bit of word-play by introducing the concept of a "will" into the discussion before reverting back to the discussion of a "covenant" in verses 18 and 19. As I mentioned in previous posts (here and here), my translation assumes that the author has not shifted away from the discussion of a "covenant" at all, and is not talking about a "will" or "testament" at all either.

Also, based on the assumptions of the ESV translators, verses 16 and 17 are interpreted as though Jesus is the "one who made" this alleged "will", and therefore, in order for the "will" to go into effect, Jesus has to "establish" it by dying. But my translation does not speak about "establishing" (phero) the death of Jesus at all. Instead, my translation offers the more common and literal interpretation of the verb phero as meaning "to bear", "carry", or "bring forward" a thing. This is why my amplified translation in previous posts inserts the words "be carried." As David Allen has noted, the meaning of phero in Hebrews 9:16 "can be interpreted in three different senses: (1) in the sense of "offering" within a sacrificial context; (2) "to be represented," or (3) in the sense of "bringing something forward."1 After this, Allen notes carefully that the Greek word phero is never found extra biblically in relation to "will" or "testament."

Also, the clause in verse 16 which mentions "the one who made it" (ESV) is translated less literally than my version. The Greek is tou diathemenou, which uses the possessive definite article alongside a person who is literally "covenanting" or "ratifying a covenant". The same exact words in Greek are used in verse 17 (but with a different conjugation) where we find the ESV mentioning (again) "the one who made it" (ho diathemenos).  David Allen comments on the significance of this repetition:
That the articular participle ho diathemenos can be translated as "covenant-sacrifice" or "covenant-ratifier" rather than the "one who makes a will/covenant" would open the door for the meaning of a covenant being inaugurated by means of a sacrificial death.2
What we see then is that it's certainly plausible, if not probable, that the author was expressing a very common fact about priestly service and worship in the old covenant tabernacle, namely that the "death" of the "covenant-ratifier" must be "carried" or "brought forward" into the presence of God. Under the old covenant law, the worshiper brought animal sacrifices forward. And after the worshiper died representatively through means of animal sacrifices, those dead victims were then carried on behalf of the worshiper by a mediating priest into the very presence of God.

The next point of difference between translations is in verse 17, where we find the ESV talking about a "will" that only "takes effect" at "death". My own personal opinion is that this is a horrendously inaccurate translation of the original Greek text. First of all, there is no word for "only" in the Greek text. Therefore, to talk about something taking effect "only" under certain circumstances is to exaggerate the author's point. Secondarily, I don't believe the author is talking about a will again. He's talking about a "covenant." Thirdly, the text does not mention a time of "death" at all. The Greek is epi nekrois, which literally says "upon dead [bodies]". The word for "dead" here in Greek is plural in number. Again, Allen's comments are helpful:
The Greek phrase epi nekrois, "when somebody has died," is difficult to interpret. Literally the entire clause reads: "for a covenant/testament is confirmed upon dead [bodies]." The phrase epi nekrois should not be translated "at death" as is often the case since there is no evidence for this..."3
In conclusion, it is plausible, if not probable, that the author is describing a theological fact taught by the Law itself, namely that "a covenant is confirmed upon dead bodies." This is why he can follow that statement with further clarification about the worshiper failing to ratify the covenant in a valid manner if he does not confirm his own death upon dead animal victims slain and "carried" on his behalf. The worshiper cannot draw near to God without a sacrifice for his own sins, and if he does not offer what the laws of the priesthood prescribe, then he must present himself spotless before God (which is an impossibility). His covenant is not valid if he does not do what the Law prescribes and illustrates.

"Therefore not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood." What follows verse 18 is an example from Exodus 24:1-2, where Moses sprinkles the blood of a slaughtered animal on behalf of Israel at the very beginning of their inauguration into covenant with God as a priestly nation. Is it merely a coincidence that the author continues the connection between Israel as a nation of priests and God inaugurating his covenant with them?

1.  David L. Allen, New American Commentary: Hebrews [B&H Publishing Group: Nashville, TN; 2010], pp. 481
2.  Ibid., pp. 479. A few paragraphs after making this statement, Allen attempts to offer a neutral opinion concerning the the conflict that ensues among scholars, saying "It is questionable whether the author intended this much symbolism behind his words." He then says that those who insist upon identifying the human worshiper with "animal sacrifices which usually accompanied the inauguration of a covenant, may be straining the author's language...". 
3.  Ibid., pp. 481


  1. Jon, perhaps you'll find it odd that someone comments on a post from over five years ago, but here I am. Having just read William Lane's observations on these verses, and noting that they seemed essentially unique, I was wondering if anyone else had similar thoughts. Where to turn, since I have no commentaries or Bibles in my collection that differed one iota from the majority view? Google, of course, which led me straight to your blog post of 1/28/2013, which, in turn, led me here. Well-reasoned, sir, and it certainly resolves some of the obvious difficulties with the traditional reading of vv. 16-22. Thank you.

    Andrew Parker, North Richland Hills, TX

  2. In my opinion, biblical commentaries appear to have "majority" views because publishers survive by the sheer volume of marketable products, and not unique content. And to a large degree, depending on the tribal affiliations of a publisher, it's not safe to "explore" seemingly new territory. Editorial boards will be open about the trajectory of a given commentary under contract, and will advise the commentator to not overstep socially acceptable (and so-called confessional) boundaries. I also think the actual majority of commentators have highly specialized fields of study and full time careers, which, when viewed alongside the deadline of a few years to generate a fresh commentary, makes it difficult to specialize in everything related to a particular book; so they rely heavily on mere interaction with the “majority" views from publisher to publisher, and the general complacency found among them.

    I do, however, have many commentaries on Hebrews, a few of which I consider to offer a unique contribution to the field of understanding Hebrews:

    1) Alexander Nairne, The Epistle of Priesthood: Studies in the Epistle of Hebrews. This is very unique in it’s expression of the Jewish Wars behind the authorship and interpretation of the letter
    2) D. Stephen Long, Hebrews (Belief Series: A Theological Commentary). This offers a lot of interesting contemporary discussions about theology proper, and how that can be (and has been) woven throughout the Christian Church’s understanding of Hebrews.
    3) Franz Delitzch, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. This offers a lot of perspective from the older critical German school of Hebrew scholars, only with a new testament epistle.
    4) Albert Vanhoye, A Different Priest (and also, by the same author The Structure and Message of the Epistle to the Hebrews, subsidiary biblical #12). Both books offer a unique literary approach to the epistle, approaching the text with a latinized, Catholic hermeneutic.
    5) David L. Allen, Lukan Authorship of Hebrews. This might not be convincing for many scholars, but it provides depth of research into the epistle like no other commentaries (even Allen’s commentary on Hebrews!) about the Hellenistic Jewish background to the (suspected Lukan) authorship of Hebrews

    I have excluded Lane’s two volume work in the WBC and his more concise, single volume paperback because I consider those to be broadly recognized among scholars to be immensely valuable.

    Some other “honorable mentions” that could also be included are:
    D. Wilson, Christ and His Rivals: Hebrews Through New Eyes (a non-scholarly, but uniquely pastoral commentary from a partial preterist perspective)
    B. F. Westcott, Epistle to the Hebrews: The Greek Text with Notes and Essays (very technical, and a treasure trove of textual technicalities)

    I hope this helps!